Much ado about grammar

July 15, 2008

Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) is the latest evil to be inflicted upon the long-suffering students of Australia – at least according to some well publicized commentators.

As someone who came to SFG in the early nineties, has used it extensively and successfully with students and in teacher professional development, I strongly disagree with the recent media reporting. While various newspapers and commentators no doubt want the best for students, their negative reactions to SFG are invariably based on limited understanding of the grammar and even less actual experience with using it in the classroom. In at least one case, I suspect that professional jealousy also plays a part: “Boo, hoo! Functional Grammar is so much more popular than the grammar that I have come up with”.

So, let’s bust a couple of myths.

1. SFG replaces traditional grammar.

Wrong – SFG builds on traditional grammar. In fact, familiar terms (e.g. noun, verb, adverb, pronoun, subject, clause) can be found in Functional Grammar. The difference is that SFG places an emphasis on not only identifying and labeling grammatical categories, but also on describing how that grammatical element is functioning within a sentence and whole text. Consider these three examples.

  • The cat sat on the mat.
  • The cat woman left her entire fortune to the local animal refuge.
  • The cat sat on the mat. It licked its paws.

Being able to identify that ‘cat’ is a noun (a typical traditional grammar-type activity) might is a useful first step, but is actually of limited value. However, SFG provides a framework for discussing how that noun is functioning in each sentence. In the first instance, it is a participant in the action of sitting; in fact ‘cat’ is the actor in this sentence (as opposed to the mat – another noun -which indicates where the cat is sitting). In the second sentence, the noun is acting adjectivally, describing the woman. Moreover, it is acting in a special way to classify the type of woman – the cat woman (in contrast, for example, to ‘the dog woman’). In the example three, we could describe the way that the noun ‘cat’ is acting as part of a lexical chain to establish links between the two sentences. That is, cat is picked up by the pronoun ‘it’ in the second sentence and is also linked through the use of whole-part relationships (i.e. a paw is a part of a cat).

A disappointing aspect of the recent National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing was its dumbed down approach to language. Unfortunately, the nature of the questions have the potential to encourage teachers to undertake simple category and error identification training with students, rather than rich and engaging explorations the possibilities of language and how it can function effectively in a variety of contexts.

2. SFG is too complicated for teachers and students.

Look, the English language is huge – it’s complex and cannot be fully described in any succinct manner. However, just as science teachers are trained to communicate complex scientific concepts in age (and ability) appropriate ways to students, so English teachers are capable of extracting core concepts from the grammar and applying them in the classroom to a close study of language. Anyone willing to put in a bit of intellectual effort can learn the basics of the grammar in a fairly short period of time. The idea is not to turn teachers or students into full blown linguists; it’s to give them an informed, working knowledge about how language operates in order to improve reading and writing texts of various kinds.

In a future blog, I’ll explore some more myths about Functional Grammar and demonstrate its worth with further, practical examples.

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